by Nanny Aut
As we approach Halloween, it seemed only appropriate to write about ghosts. Not the supernatural kind but those past memories that haunt many autistics and play back at unexpected and often unwanted times. Such as when you are just about to fall asleep, at 3 am in the morning or when I am trying to get something done that I haven’t locked into. These ghosts are Perseveration.
Perseveration is the inability to let go of past events and tends to be a negative experience. Not always, the upside is that, because of perseveration, our brain will keep working away trying to resolve barriers and sometimes it succeeds. My best workarounds over the years have come from my brain refusing to let go and staying on the search for the missing clues that solve the problem I am dealing with. And perseveration also is a protective mechanism, it reminds us of past mistakes, so we don’t repeat them.
The problem is, it also happens when there is no solution and there’s never going to be one. And we may never encounter that situation again. This means the problem stays stuck on loop with no resolution, often with the experience being played back as fresh and intense as the time we experienced it. This means the trauma doesn’t fade. It seems to be a nasty combo of PTSD flashback, trauma brain seeking to protect us and autistic brain seeing a problem that it needs to solve.
These negative ghosts come in three packages for me: Actions I took that I am deeply ashamed of, negative experiences (things done to me) that are passive and negative experiences that are active.
Actions That Carry Deep Shame
These invariably come around times I hurt someone, mostly accidentally, but the one time I chose to do so on purpose haunts me the most. While each time I have learnt from my mistake (if I know what I did to cause the harm), in each case, I was unable to make amends to the person I harmed, either because they cut me off, refused to listen, or in the one case where it was deliberate, I was too ashamed to approach to apologise. This means my brain keeps playing them back to see if there is any way to rewind time to make amends to these people. Even though logic says there aren’t, my problem-solving brain won’t accept that and keeps working on trying to fix things. And my long-standing nemesis RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria) takes full advantage of this, telling me I don’t deserve to be around people, because even when I don’t mean to, I hurt them.
When I am doing ok, I can slap this bitter imposter around the face with a wet kipper. I can tell it that it’s a liar. That the deliberate bullying was terrible and I shouldn’t have done it, but I have learnt from it and made sure I never do that again. That the accidental damage occurred because of misunderstandings and the other person’s determination to view negative intent where there was none. If they were people who chose to see the best in others, these damages wouldn’t have happened. They would have assumed it was an accident, given me a heads up that I had made a mistake, why it was a mistake and how to avoid it, and we would both have moved on, no lasting damage. Instead, they end up with a self-inflicted deep wound caused by their own negative worldview. It may not be their fault that they see the world that way, but it’s still their issue to address, not mine.
However, when I am not in a good place, it can push me deeper into the mud making it that much harder to escape the swamps of despair. It forms part of the negative self-talk after a meltdown, where that overdose of a cocktail of emotional chemicals is swamping my brain and telling me the best thing to do is to exit, not just to protect myself from future pain, but to protect those I have hurt and others I may hurt in the future. And at that point it makes perfect sense.
This perseveration of social mistakes is very common amongst autistics and not all of us are able to fight it, or are even aware that the issue isn’t with us but in how others choose to interpret us. Every ‘You’re so rude’, every eye roll, every ‘You know what you did’ (hot tip – we genuinely don’t), every turned shoulder, every ‘ghosting’ stays with us like a million cuts that won’t heal. Only when we get to get to understand what caused the harm, explain our side and it’s understood that the mistake was genuine can we let it go and heal from it.
Passive Negative Experiences
These tend to be minor situations where I have been wronged or harmed or failed to protect myself. These tend to come up at three in the morning or when I am relaxing, often with the perfect response that I didn’t think of at the time. The scene replays but with little to no emotional intensity – a little like watching a film you aren’t invested in, and often with the ending rewritten so it ends the way that I wanted it to, not the way that it did. It’s also where my brain can use those unkind and hurtful comments that can be used to attack the attacker. Words I would never choose to use in real life because I don’t ever want to do that to someone else, even if I think they strongly deserve it – because I know how much it hurts. Sometimes these re-runs can be cathartic, allowing my brain to tick them off as ‘complete’, but more often than not they choose to linger and pop up in random moments.
‘Remember that time when you were eight and the teacher said x? And everyone laughed? Well, here is the perfect comeback for it…’
I have found that a dump diary can work very well for these imposters – the act of writing them out when they pop up moves them out of my brain. Even though I later destroy the dump, my brain still sees it as complete. The most effective time is when it’s recent, where you can pour all your current anger and frustration onto the page before it has time to dig in and embed itself in your memories.
Active Negative Experiences
These come under Trauma and CPTSD. Where the negative experience was so intense that it has hard-wired into my threat response. When these experiences choose to visit it can either be a full-frontal attack, replaying the events as if they are happening now, with all the accompanying intense emotional distress of the time that I experienced it, or they can be by stealth, influencing my responses without me being aware of the influence. These experiences tend to have been caused by intentional acts of bullying and gaslighting, particularly gaslighting, where the bully tried to make me doubt my own experience. Where they went out of their way to trigger a negative response and then act surprised for an audience who doesn’t see the game they’re playing. Where I have to go back to my diary to verify my own memory because even I start doubting what’s real and what isn’t.
This dual reality is the worst to clear because the brain keeps running it over and over to see how you can expose something like that, to see how to persuade people who are more ready to believe the liar and doubt the honest person, to see if there is anyway to overcome group bias where the word of someone in the group will always be trusted over someone who isn’t. And to check, check and double-check to see if there was even the remotest possibility that you misinterpreted and that theirs really is the correct version of events. And every time it runs, the trauma deepens and the more it affects your reflexive responses.
And you know that this is going to happen over and over again with different people, because our neurological make up makes us easy targets for this. More so if we were brought up to ignore our experiences – ‘It’s not that loud’, ‘Don’t use that tone’ (genuinely still have no idea what that tone is, I can’t hear my own tone), ‘You know what you did’ (No, I don’t or I wouldn’t need to ask) and being given the wrong labels for your emotions. Stress laughing doesn’t mean I find it funny, overwhelm tears don’t mean I’m sad, fight presentation because I am severely anxious/stressed doesn’t mean I’m angry.
This means the brain is never going to let it go, because it is constantly re-running to try to find ways to prevent it in the future.
The ways it sneaks up by stealth can be as harmful as the playbacks. The panic attack at the words ‘performance review’ because of the number of times that this has been used as a gaslighting weapon. And you are caught both ways – deny or defend against the accusations of incompetence, then you are portrayed as ‘difficult and not listening to advice’, agree, even though you know it’s a lie and they fire you for incompetence instead of ‘defiant attitude’. Either way those words mean you are gone and there is nothing you can do about it. This means that even before the interview starts you are an emotional mess and in zero position to have any chance of arguing your case.
The lack of trust in others because you start to doubt your ability to recognise those who genuinely support you from those who pretend to, in order to identify weaknesses they can weaponise. The panic attacks and meltdowns from even the thought of asking for help or support because of the severely vulnerable position that puts you in, if someone chooses to turn that need for help against you.
That reflexive protective response when someone misunderstands you – is that genuine or are they playing a game? That urge to retreat at the first stumble because you know firsthand exactly how much worse it might get if you stay put.
And time after time, you talk yourself down and recognise that interacting with no-one isn’t living. And many times it works out, and sometimes it doesn’t and, speaking for myself, I have no way of predicting one from the other until it’s too late. Despite the multiple replays and trying to figure out any early warning signs I can use for next time. This means each time you get it wrong, not only do you take a mental beating from the bullying, you also give yourself a mental beating for failing to recognise, once again, the smiling traitor.
Therapy can go some way to help in this – but for me it only helps so far. It helps in recognising the other person as the aggressor and that it is not my fault that I was the target. It helps in spotting the reflex reactions and to run a query against them to see if it is a gut instinct or a trauma response.
What it doesn’t help with, for me, is the perseveration, or in preventing the trauma response occurring. And I think it doesn’t help because my past history has shown, over and over, that these aggressors exist and seem to zone into people like me like heat-seeking missiles. This means my brain refuses to let go in the forlorn hope that one day it will solve this problem and identify the early-warning signs effectively enough that I don’t step unwittingly into another trap.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not completely clueless – I have a mile-long list of red flags I have identified. However, not all. And not enough to keep me safe.
Normally this is the point that I come up with solutions to avoid this happening or how to manage these things if they do. Not today. Perseveration, particularly with active negative experiences, is just something I have had to learn to live with, because I have no other choice.
So, if anyone has some good ‘ghost-busting’ tips for perseveration, particularly those active poltergeists, please drop them in the comments below.
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